It was a picture that perhaps best captured the angularities of Indian secularism: AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien in a topi even as Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung and vice-president Hamid Ansari preferred to be bare-headed. The occasion was an iftaar party organised by the Delhi chief minister. Perhaps Kejriwal and O’Brien (an Anglo-Indian from Kolkata) had taken their cue from Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who once said, “To run the country, you have to take everyone along … at times, you will have to wear a topi, at times a tilak.”
It is precisely the contrarian worldview to that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who last week chose to skip the president’s iftaar while hosting a meeting for the NorthEast chief ministers at exactly the same time. Modi once told his ‘Muslim face’ Zafar Sareshwala that he didn’t want to attend iftaar parties or wear a skull cap because “he was not interested in tokenism that smacked of political hypocrisy”. Modi claims his definition of secularism is “India First”, which has no space for “religious appeasement”. So, which is the way forward: The Modi model or the Nitish one? And should attending or hosting iftaars become a badge of secularism?
It is true that iftaars are increasingly about the political photo-op. When Jawaharlal Nehru held iftaar parties in the 1950s, they were reportedly small affairs held at the Congress headquarters. Over time, the occasions have grown bigger in size: Sonia Gandhi’s iftaar party was held at the main banquet hall in the Ashoka hotel. The focus is also now less on the food on the table: the korma and sheermal must give way to the right political optics. So, by ensuring that Nitish Kumar was sitting with her at the high table, Sonia Gandhi sent out a clear message of her political choices ahead of the crucial Bihar elections. Indeed, by only inviting opposition leaders to the iftaar, the Congress president appeared keen to revive her party’s claim to lead the anti-BJP space in the monsoon session of parliament. The message to the Muslim voters in particular was stark: The anti-Modi forces are united and on your side.
In a sense, iftaar politics reveals the obvious limitations of the Nitish ‘tilak-topi’ brand of secularism. You won’t fight for Muslims being discriminated in jobs, housing and education; those who are wrongly accused of terror will not get relief; those who remain trapped in ghettoes won’t be pulled out of their misery but you will organise five star buffets, rub shoulders with an assortment of clerics and believe you have won over Muslim hearts and minds.
To that extent, Modi is not wrong in pointing out the hypocrisy of his so-called ‘secular’ opponents. And yet, there is an inherent double standard in the performance of his public duties that the prime minister too must grapple with. Here is a prime minister who will lose no opportunity to underline his deep and abiding commitment to Hindu rituals and traditions. Then, be it performing a mahaaarti in Varanasi a day after his general election victory; conducting a special puja at the Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal while on an official visit or offering prayers at the Dhakeswari temple in Dhaka while visiting Bangladesh, Modi has never been squeamish about a public expression of his Hindu identity.
This is where the Modi brand of secularism is called into question. If you overtly celebrate Hindu belief systems even while shunning Islamic traditions in public, then there is bound to be a question mark on your commitment to treating all religions equally. In his private space, Modi has every right to observe Hindu ceremonies, but in the public arena, there cannot be a discriminatory approach. It cannot be that you join in the Diwali Milan celebrations at the BJP headquarters but deliberately choose to avoid attending the president’s iftaar even though it is just a 10 minute drive from 7 RCR. It cannot also be that you will wear the saffron garb at Pashupatinath, tribal headgear in Nagaland, and a Sikh turban in Amritsar, but will reject a skull cap at a sadbhavana Yatra in Ahmedabad.
This is where symbolism matters in a multi-religious society, pushing you to wear a topi at Eid and put on a tilak during Dassehra. The Nitish model of secularism is flawed in that it doesn’t go beyond the symbolism and fails to address the deeper crisis facing the Indian Muslim. The Modi model is flawed in that it appears to treat some groups more equal than others, almost reaffirming the suspicion amongst minorities of being treated with bias and prejudice. The Nitish model treats the Muslims as a vote bank who must vote on fear and insecurity of the ‘other’; the Modi model seems to treat the Hindus as a vote bank who must unite to secure their religious identity.
Which is why we need to look beyond both these flawed models of secularism. A photo-op with a topi means little if a young Muslim is not provided equal opportunities in education and employment. Similarly, a promise to put India first and then pick and choose social occasions based on one’s religious beliefs is also sending out the wrong message.
Maybe the Prime Minister has little faith in the Nehruvian model of irreligious secularism. But he may wish to observe the value system of his BJP predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who once said: “A secular state does not mean an anti-religious state but one which does not identify itself with any specific form of worship but treats all equally.” In simple terms, a state which celebrates Diwali, Eid and Christmas with equal fervour or similar distance.
(Post-script: I must confess to have missed out on iftaar hopping this season since the celebrations coincide with prime time news tv. Or maybe since my distinctly secular food habits have led to rising cholesterol, a korma-free Ramzan is just what the doctor ordered!)
This column first appeared in hindustan times